Between 2011 and 2012 my husband John and I lived and taught in Najran, Saudi Arabia. It was one of the strangest, most interesting and intense experiences of our lives. In fact I wrote a memoir about it and in 2016 Astoria/Assaggi published it in Italian as Le ragazze di Rub ‘al-Khali: Un anno in una remota città saudita. Last year I published the English version Teacher, We Girls! (available in a digital format for US$3.99).
Even though I left the Kingdom, I haven’t forgotten it. Indeed, even if it weren’t seared in my memory, it would be difficult to slip from my mind considering the events that have since unfolded there. In 2014 Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1000 lashes for the crime of blogging. For nearly four years now Saudi Arabia and its allies having been conducting a disastrous ‘intervention‘ against Yemeni Houthi–Najran Province itself has become war zone. Then, in 2018, there was the remarkable ‘mistake‘ of Kamal Khashoggi’s murder and dismemberment in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. In the same year, women in Saudi Arabia technically won the right to drive but, as the New York Times jokes ‘it’s complicated‘, as several women’s rights activists were jailed and complained of torture in detention. While Mohammed bin Salman is promoting himself as a women’s rights reformer, the General Department for Counter Extremism has released an animated video calling feminism an ‘extreme idea‘.
Considering all this excitement, I was surprised to learn that the Kingdom is planning to allow non-religious tourists into the country. A cautiously optimistic piece in USA Today, “Saudi Arabia tourism: As kingdom opens up to tourists, will people visit?” includes this extraordinary paragraph:
Turning Saudi Arabia into a destination will take some effort. Visitors will need to take care to respect the country’s cultural norms, such as dressing more modestly when they go to the beach. The kingdom may need to adapt some of its rules to foreign visitors – perhaps relaxing its ban on alcoholic beverages.
Imagining Curtis Tate writing this, I laughed and laughed and laughed. The poor guy probably thought he’d struck a nice balance–yes, there will certainly be some adjustments but let’s gloss over them and look on the bright side! ‘Dress more modestly when you go to the beach’–who could object to that? ‘Respect cultural norms’–eminently reasonable.
But when Curtis talks about ‘the country’s cultural norms’ he is talking about laws dictated by the ruling Saud family and enforced with ruthless determination, norms such as gender apartheid, indentured servitude, religious bigotry and child marriage. As a tourist you would need to ‘respect’ the view that the death penalty is an appropriate punishment for homosexuality, witchcraft, adultery, apostasy and–yes–the consumption of alcohol. In order to attract fun-loving backpackers, as Curtis gently suggests, the Sauds would do well to consider ‘relaxing’ such bans.
The problem is perhaps that poor Curtis Tate just doesn’t know any better. How could he? He’s never been to Riyadh, let alone Najran or Qassim! And English-language journalists can’t provide a detailed report of what it’s really like to live there, because they can’t possibly know. Luckily, with tourism opening up, these naive optimists will have an opportunity to diligently correct their daft puff-pieces.
Meanwhile, in lieu of a Frommer’s guide, I offer them an excerpt of Teacher, We Girls! In this section, the situation is that I’ve just arrived at the Najran University Preparty (sic) School for Girls and am meeting my colleagues for the first time. The school is surrounded by a high wall and the students and teachers are locked inside all day by armed guards. No one may leave the grounds until the school day is over.
When I’d settled in I remembered that I was still wearing my black outdoor garb. So I stood up and unclasped my abaya to take it off. I was wearing a blouse and long beige pants underneath—pretty inoffensive, I thought. But when I did so, there were general gasps and I looked up in alarm.
“What is it?” I asked.
The neighbor to my left said in a confidential tone, “You must not wear trousers like this, it is not allowed. Only skirts and dresses.”
“Oh.” I quickly pulled the abaya back on, refastened the clasp and sat down feeling foolish and confused.
The to my left put down her pen, took off her glasses and smiled at me.
“There are a lot of rules. Don’t worry, you will get used to it. I have been ten years here already, from Pakistan.”
“Ten years! Are you alone?”
“No, I am here with my family. My husband works at the men’s college and I have a girl of three and a baby boy. He is fourteen months.”
“Wow, you’re bringing up kids here! Has it been hard, living here so long?”
“Yes, it is hard,” she gave a short nod and pursed her lips, a gesture that seemed to express ironic humor, acceptance and weariness all at once.
“What is the most difficult thing for you?”
“The most difficult is being always inside, like a cage. In Pakistan, I am from the countryside near Islamabad, I always used to walk in the hills. I was a good walker, very strong, and it made me happy,” she smiled, “but here it is impossible. I want to take my children somewhere, I go up to the roof of our apartment building and we walk a little up there, but it is not the same. You see my skin? This acne, the dark rings under my eyes…I didn’t used to have them. It is because of the life here, because there is no sunlight. And it is hard to lose weight, except for Mrs. Skinny Iffat here.”
The woman in aquamarine leered humorously and stuck out her tongue.
“A gift for you, Mrs. Atif,” she laughed.
“What about the students? How are they?”
Atif gave the matter careful consideration “They are very stupid.”
“Yes. Their level is low. They never do homework. They are noisy in the class and do not have manners. They believe we are their servants, not their teachers. And be careful, if one girl thinks you have insulted her—maybe you tell her off for being late to class, maybe she is in a bad mood—she will talk with her friends about you and they will go to the Dean and the next day maybe you don’t have a job.”
“Yes Ma’am?” Atif asked the door.
I looked over and saw Reem had poked her head into the room and was flashing her diamond smile.
“Meeting with the men everyone!” she announced.
All the teachers stood up and started moving out the door. At first this seemed perfectly natural, but then a thought held me up. Wait a minute…this is a GIRL’S school…in Saudi Arabia! Surely no men are allowed? And none of the teachers are putting on their cloaks and veils so they can’t be going outside!
Puzzled, I picked up a notebook and followed them downstairs, wondering what was going on. Had men really been permitted into the women’s campus? What was the point of all these restrictions if a man could just waltz onto female turf? Was Saudi gender segregation just a sham after all? Were we going to have some kind of orgy?
“Who are we meeting?” I asked the tall pregnant woman, who was wandering along in a dreamy way.
“Dr. Aasif, the Head of school.”
The women wandered to a tiny receptionist’s office just inside the main entrance, exactly where I’d seen the towering androgynous woman with the chin tattoos. When I got to the room, it was so full of people I could barely squeeze through the doorway. Reem was huddling over a telephone that sat on a desk in the middle of the room. Everyone else encircled her. There wasn’t enough room for everyone so couple of teachers went to stand outside rather than being squished. Reem wore a grave expression and hovered intently over the phone.
So that was why we didn’t have to cover up—the meeting was going to be over the phone! I felt a strange sense of relief. After all, the gender-apartheid system was internally consistent.
“Dr. Aasif is supposed to call at twelve o’clock,” said Reem. “Now it is one minute to.”
As time passed, we all stood there with a sense of nervous expectation. A few minutes after the time for the appointment, we relaxed into soft whispers, teasing and giggles. Well, most of us did. Reem looked to be wound up so tight that she might shatter from the internal pressure.
When the phone finally rang, Reem pounced on it and looked at us, pressing her finger to her lips in warning.
“Good afternoon Dr. Aasif, this is Reem,” her voice, which had previously been sharp and commanding, transformed to suddenly become very quiet and very meek.
“Yes, we are all here Dr. Aasif. Yes, all right, now I will switch to speakerphone.”
She asked him to hold for a moment as she said something under her breath then tried a switch.
“Yes, hello Dr. Aasif, can you speak please, just to test if it is working?”
We all looked at the phone waiting for the Great Voice. A tiny squeak was holding forth from the receiver, but the speakerphone was silent.
“Hello? Hello? Dr. Aasif?” Reem timidly tried to get Dr. Aasif’s attention, but he barreled right along, talking up a tiny storm. Reem started jabbing at the switch with more urgency.
It didn’t work.
“Dr. Aasif? Dr. Aasif,” but the voice kept squeaking. “Please! Doctor Aasif! The speakerphone is not working. One moment please while we try to fix it.” She set down the receiver and motioned to me.
“Kathy, dear, help.”
“Me? Um, I don’t know anything about phones.”
“OK.” I squinted at the switches, saw ‘on speakerphone’ and ‘off speakerphone’. The switch was definitely turned to ‘on speakerphone’. I twiddled the switch a few times but it made no difference. I shrugged and stepped back as Atif came forward to inspect it.
“Doctor Reem, it is broken,” Atif announced solemnly. Reem nodded, palely, as if being told a patient was terminal. She picked the receiver up again.
“Hello? Dr. Aasif? Are you there? Hello. I am afraid the speakerphone is not working. What do you suggest we do?” She listened as the voice responded.
“Yes,” she answered at last, “I see. Taib’. Dear Teachers, because the machine will not cooperate with us, you will need to come very close to the telephone and be very quiet, so all can hear. I will turn the volume up as much as it can go.”
She put the handset on a desk and sat with her head resting near it. Then she beckoned us to do the same.
For some reason, the other teachers shoved me forward, and I joined the other three women who were closest. As he spoke, we all tried to get our heads close enough to hear him without giving each other head-butts. The other teachers behind us visibly relaxed—there was no way they were going to hear anything. Even from my position it was hopeless; all I could make out were the long, long oratorical cadences of someone used to holding the floor. Reem seemed to understand some of it, and did an admirable job of inserting ‘Yes’s and ‘Mmmms’ but a vein in her forehead was bulging with the effort.
She must have understood some of it because at one point she wanted clarification.
“Dr. Aasif? Yes. But Dr. Aasif…Dr. Aasif…Yes of course, but Dr. Aasif, if I may…. I just want to…Dr. Aasif. DR AASIF! I would like to say one thing! Thank you.”
After an extremely long discussion about whether we ought to use green or red pens to mark exams, Dr. Aasif launched into a long speech whose topic I miraculously heard: it was ‘Professional Development’.
Just at that moment, though, a deafening wail came through the walls and seemed to shake the whole building. It was a guttural roar, as if from the bowels of the earth, respecting no physical barrier, massaging the kidneys with its force. After the initial shock, I realized that it must be the mid-day call to prayer coming from the brand-new mosque next door, which had at least five top-of-the-range loudspeakers propped on its turret.
Some of the teachers got glazed looks on their faces and began muttering to themselves. They were saying prayers. My shoulders relaxed and I prepared to stand up straight, thinking that the phone call would have to end now, for holiness’s sake. To my astonishment, though, Reem and the others were carrying on, heads nearly resting on the desk by the phone as if they couldn’t even hear the deafening blast.
I gave up. They could keep going if they wanted, but I wasn’t going to play along. I slumped against the wall and started doodling elephants on my notepad. I drew one with a speech bubble coming out of the trunk saying, “This is dumbo.” The other elephant, whose trunk was a bit too short and fat, replied, “I like nodles.” Elephant one countered, “That’s not how you spell noodles. It’s n-o-o-d-l-e-s.”
After another ten minutes of this carry-on, the phone conversation was nearly over. Dr. Aasif took yet another ten minutes to sum up and sign off, then Reem replaced the receiver looking flushed and weak from the stress. She did her best to mask her fatigue with a stately smile, and she raised her hands to signal an announcement.
“Dear teachers! You all know well that many minds are better than one! Here is your assignment: Write down all the points of the meeting that you remember. Then I will collect these notes and make a full account. Please, go and write it immediately while it is still fresh, and I will collect them in ten minutes!”
We all returned to the teachers’ room and everyone busily started writing notes. I looked at them in disbelief, then started to carefully and slowly write down the only two things I’d heard for sure: ‘Professional Development’ and the point about using green pens, which Reem had paraphrased for us.
When Reem returned, she came around our desks one by one, requesting our notes. I handed her my page.
“Is this all?” She said in surprise.
“Well, um, actually I couldn’t hear anything,” I replied.
She turned sadly but gracefully to the next person.
To read the rest of the book, click here.